Many people are led to believe that Charles Darwin had been an anti-religious atheist, devising evolutionary theory as a way of fighting all traditional faith(s). But nothing could be further from the historical facts. For example, did you know that the only university degree the great scholar earned throughout his life had been those of an Anglican Theologian? Although he had his doubts and quarrels especially with religious fundamentalists, he appreciated the support of deeply religious colleagues such as Charles Kingsley, Asa Gray and his co-discoverer Alfred Russell Wallace. Due to his sound and interdisciplinary education, Darwin understood from early on the difference between empirical and metaphysical questions and never lost his personal interest in both. During the last year of his rich life, he read the book “The Creed of Science” (1881) by William Graham, who championed for a non-reductionist view of evolutionary theism and argued for ongoing dialogue between empirical, philosophical and religious perspectives. Delighted, Darwin wrote to Graham on July 3rd 1881: “I hope that you will not think it intrusive on my part to thank you heartily for the pleasure which I have derived from reading your admirably written `Creed of Science,’ though I have not yet quite finished it, as now that I am old I read very slowly. It is a very long time since any other book has interested me so much.” And he proceeded in acknowledging that “you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
Darwin not only tolerated his religious family members, friends and colleagues but also sought actively answers about epistemological questions which still await to be addressed. He understood that – if evolutionary theory is true – religion and spirituality are part of our evolved human nature. Darwin presented respective hypotheses in his “Descent of Man”, arguing that the “beliefs in unseen or spiritual agencies” (today called super-empirical agents) evolved and are still evolving by adopting complex emotions and bolstering culturally tested traditions and in-group cooperation. Empirical studies conducted during the last decades supported many of Darwin’s early assumptions, while replacing and adding others. For example, we found religious groups to have (on average) far more children than their non-religious neighbors or we are exploring the too-often neglected role of women in the growth and fabrics of religious communities. In this dynamic field of evolutionary studies of religion(s), atheists, agnostics and theists from various faculties, cultures, creeds and nations are working together in order to get a better understanding of our human natures and cultures. We claim that scientific knowledge should be sought out and shared, instead of being misused as weapons in deafening and inevitably shallow campaigns.
As the ardent critics of religion Ludwig Büchner and Edward Aveling tried to win him over for their causes, Darwin declined in September 1881, adding that he was not “atheistic” but “agnostic”. He was a man of curiosity and dialogue instead of prejudice and culture war. This could be an especially valuable part of his heritage in times when radical voices from various sides threaten to drown scientific progress by claiming “Reason” or “God” as their sole possession. Don’t let them fool you. As Darwin understood and lived in contrast to many self-declared “Darwinists” today: True evolutionary studies are driven by mutual respect and shared curiosity.